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Pope Francis calls for peace in conflict zones in Christmas message

Pope Francis has used his first Christmas Day message as the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics to urge peace in the Middle East and Africa. He also appealed for the environment to be saved from "human greed".

Speaking on Wednesday from the balcony of St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City, the 77-year-old pontiff, who was elected to replace the retired Pope Benedict in March, called for social harmony in South Sudan, where thousands are believed to have died in recent ethnic violence.

In his first "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and world) message, delivered to tens of thousands of faithful in St Peter's Square, he also urged an end to the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He prayed for a "favorable outcome" in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"Wars shatter and hurt so many lives!" he said, adding that children, the elderly, battered women and the sick were conflict's most vulnerable victims.

He called for the rescue of child soldiers, an end to human trafficking and a "dignified life" for migrants, pointing towards this year's tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa, in which hundreds of Africans died in a shipwreck en route to Europe.

The first nine months of Pope Francis' papacy have seen him endear himself to Catholics and non-Catholics for his down-to-earth approach and calls for the church to be more humble. He was named Time magazine's

"Person of the Year"

for 2013. On

Christmas Eve

, he broke with tradition by carrying a statue of the Baby Jesus, a job normally performed by an aide.

Christians under threat

Meanwhile, the leader of the world's 80 million Anglicans used his first Christmas sermon to point out that Christians in the Middle East were being "attacked and massacred, driven into exile" and also drew attention to the cause of South Sudan.

Over the Christmas period, Christians in Syria have faced becoming refugees and Iraqi Christians were killed in bomb attacks targeting a church and market.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby used the festive season to remember those suffering for their faith in the birthplace of Christianity.

se/tj (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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